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Mapping the Conquest

Pádraig Lenihan

Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory: A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland c. 1530-1750, by William J Smyth, Cork University Press, 640 pp, €69, ISBN: 978-0268017811

I first encountered Professor Smyth’s work in a 1988 volume called Common Ground in which he presented a 1659 “census” or countrywide poll tax listing of names in maps, illuminated by a concise commentary.(1) The maps conveyed to me, as nothing had before, the huge, but regionally nuanced, impact of the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650s. To take one of the maps in that article (it is also reproduced in colour as plate 2j in Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory) as an example. The distribution, size and ethnicity (see attached map) of towns and cities showed the extent to which Cromwellian policy pushed the native population out of urban Ireland

Outside Ulster, an Old English mercantile elite dominated all the major towns, including Dublin, before the wars of the 1640s: Limerick had its Arthurs, Roches, Creaghs, Sextons, Whites and Stackpoles, for instance, and other towns their own endogamous cliques.(2) Natives comprised the bulk of their populations, overwhelmingly so in the case of Drogheda, Waterford, Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick and Galway. With the single and unimportant exception of the latter, all of these towns now had majority or substantial (in excess of 40 per cent) immigrant populations. In the countryside the relative distribution of identifiably Irish and immigrant surnames presented just two as yet discontinuous regions of majority settler populations, the smaller being the Laggan, and the larger the Bann valley, Antrim, and north Down. A revised version of the article on the 1659 census is to be found as a chapter in Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory. A version of the Co Dublin case study has appeared in print and earlier versions of the Kilkenny and Tipperary case study chapters have appeared in the county History and Society series. They are joined by new studies which fill out most of this weighty book. It is good to have all, old and new, within the same covers. As the subtitle A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland would imply, the chapters are linked by a coherent unifying theme: colonisation.

But was early modern Ireland a colony? Smyth starts with the assumption that it was, citing quite a broad definition of colonialism as the “conquest of an inhabited territory by representatives of an external power”. Colonial expansion is seen as fundamentally predatory, with heavy taxes, outright confiscation of assets or diverted flows of trade and capital all skewed to benefit the metropolitan power and its inhabitants. He also enumerates and discusses the characteristics of a colony. This sets up a primarily non-European context of “Western colonial capitalism” in which to examine what the Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian state did in Ireland and to the Irish. Smyth identifies four different types of colonialism. In the “administrative” plantation, imperial control was achieved by military, economic or administrative means without large-scale European settlement. East India Company factories in Bengal would spring to mind as an example. In “plantation” colonies like Jamaica, English, Scottish and Irish indentured servants, and later African slaves, produced primary products (like tobacco and sugar in this instance) at a price and on a scale impossible to replicate in Europe. In areas of “pure settlement”, like the New England colonies, the native population was either driven off, killed off or obligingly died off from unfamiliar European diseases. To find an example of the final “mixed-settlement” model Smyth has to go outside the British Empire to see in the highland societies of Latin America as the model “most relevant” to Ireland’s experience. The comparison is intriguing. Perhaps one might argue that Evo Morales is a Bolivian Daniel O’Connell. The current president is the first identifiably indigenous Indian to win the post and is pressing to safeguard the position of three major surviving native languages (here comparisons with O’Connell break down) still spoken by many of the state’s inhabitants. In his final chapter, Professor Smyth deftly traces comparisons and connections between Ireland and the British Atlantic empire but does not pursue this Latin American comparison. There is plenty to go on with North America. In portraying the Gael as barbarous, Tudor commentators often drew explicit and unflattering parallels with American Indians and sometimes acted, as Smyth points out, as if these parallels were true.

Where geographers and those within the general discipline of cultural studies tend to view the Irish experience through the colonial prism historians tend to be more sceptical, though even the most sceptical would concede that “a history of conquest followed by plantation and the expropriation of native proprietors gave Ireland some of the features of a colony.(4) It was a hybrid. Before Sidney’s presidency and the second Desmond rising, one can make a plausible case that Ireland was just another Tudor marchland qualitatively comparable to, say, the North of England and amenable to the same template of reform: cut out or co-opt the top magnates, set up regional councils with special powers, replace local institutions with English common law, impose religious uniformity, and shire the territories into recognisable territorial units.(5) The reality of violence and expropriation is so overwhelming, in my view, in the next eighty years until the restoration of Charles II that the colonial hat surely fits. It is Pollyannaish to ignore all that conflict and conjure up a more agreeable past where native and immigrant communities made “adjustments” and reached mutually acceptable “accommodations”.

If one is talking of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Ireland can more plausibly be presented in many respects as a fairly typical western European society of the time. Clearly, it lacked many of the eighteenth century colonial stereotypes, like distance from the mother country, exotic produce, extreme temperatures, or slavery. The majority Irish population was ruled by a privileged elite which monopolised wealth and power, but that makes Ireland no different from other societies in western Europe. That the eighteenth century Protestant ascendancy was distinct in religion, ancestry and (albeit decreasingly) language is less usual and its persistent hostility to the Papist mass cannot be normalised and gives to Ireland the whiff of a colonial frontier.

By leaning on a colonial framework throughout the period Smyth misses some potentially illuminating British and mainland European comparisons. The sort of linguistic pressures exerted against Irish might be compared and contrasted with those eroding Scottish Gaelic, Occitan, Basque, Breton, Norwegian, Czech or Catalan: all languages under threat by expanding vernaculars: English, French, Danish, German and Castilian.

That said, the author’s selection of maps conveys the reality of English expansion in a genuinely illuminating way. A 1520s map of Ireland (one of twenty-two contemporary maps reproduced in colour) grossly distorts the size of the Pale and the adjacent Kildare lordship. The south-westerly course of the Boyne upriver through the named sites of Drogheda, Slane, Navan, Trim and Portlester (a bog-island on a tributary further upriver) is depicted with tolerable accuracy except that the river stretches some four-fifths of the distance across the island! The effect is rather as if the Boyne rose at Athenry. The coast from Lough Swilly to the mouth of the Shannon is a straight line which then gently curves around to Kinsale. At this time the House of Kildare still controlled the governorship and it would be only in 1534 that Henry VIII abandoned the practice of delegating his authority to a prominent local magnate, and dismissed Gerald ógFitzgerald, Ninth Earl of Kildare as deputy. The map conveys the king’s hazy and distorted mental image of Ireland better than words could ever do. Compare this to the survey by Robert Lythe, employed by governor Sir Henry Sidney between 1567 and 1571. A reconstruction of Lythe’s map taken from Andrews’s Maps and their Makers shows the coastline from Killary right around to Strangford Lough accurately delineated. The northern third of the island, however, looks as shapeless as toothpaste extruded from a tube. Lythe’s work accompanied and facilitated Sidney’s creation of provincial presidencies in Connacht and Ulster and the insertion of seneschals who were lesser, but no less rapacious, officials infesting many parts of Gaelic Leinster.

The surveyor’s chain could also bind. Maps were part of the armoury of the state “like guns, ships and forts” and Richard Bartlett, the cartographer and artist of the Nine Years War illustrates the point well. In his pictorial map of a six-mile section of the Blackwater valley between Benburb and the mouth of the Callan the angular bastioned forts of the English probe valley bottom, bog and open countryside. This space represents the most fought-over area in Ireland. The vanguard of Bagenal’s column was halted within sight of Blackwater fort on the Co Tyrone side of the river and the column destroyed at the Yellow Ford. At one extremity of the map Eoghan Rua O’Neill would annihilate a Scottish covenanter army at Benburb. At the other, Charlemont Fort would be a critical strategic objective attacked in 1641, 1642, 1644, 1650 and 1689.

The map conveys an impression that Smyth later corroborates. The benchmark study of the Ulster plantation confirms that Gaelic Ulster was not blanketed in vast impenetrable forests.(6) Bartlett’s map of the east Tyrone/north Armagh region, also reproduced in colour, suggests that less than a fifth of that countryside was covered in pockets of discontinuous woodland. Extrapolating from another map dating from 1561-3 and associated with the plantation of Laois and Offaly, Smyth concludes that about one quarter of the Gaelic midlands was wooded, clinging to valley bottoms and the fringes of bogs. Bartlett’s map of Dungannon and Tullyhoge is the best known to the general public: it is reproduced in the recent Irish Times special supplement for instance. The centre-piece of the composition is the flag of St George fluttering over a ruined tower house at Dungannon, the nearest thing to an administrative capital of Hugh O’Neill’s lordship. This country included modern-day north Armagh, Tyrone, south-east Derry, not to mention the territories of subordinate chiefs or uirríthe like O’Cahan. The picture (and it is primarily a work of art rather than a functional map) was drawn after Kinsale in the last fourteen months before O’Neill’s submission at Mellifont, when he was a hunted fugitive lurking in the woods of Glenconcoyne, in south-east Derry. The stone chair of the O’Neills (a replica is to be seen in the “Soldiers and Chiefs” exhibition in the National Museum) is also depicted (see attached map) atop the inauguration site on Tullyhoge hill.

The picture shows the regular layout of Lord Deputy Mountjoy’s camp menacingly near, a sharp contrast to the organic curves of O’Hagan’s rath. Mountjoy smashed the stone chair to mark what he saw as his final defeat of O’Neill. In fact, O’Neill lost the war but won the peace, though his later flight ceded Mountjoy a posthumous victory.

A recurring feature of maps in various chapters is the polarity between the north-western and south-eastern halves of the island. The printed volumes of Elizabeth I’s “Fiants” are ingeniously used to convey the impact of civil administration during her long (1558-1603) reign. This matches the spread of county formation and the granting of charters to create parliamentary boroughs. James I created many new boroughs, mostly in Ulster and planted regions elsewhere, to pack the Irish House of Commons with a Protestant majority in time for the 1613-15 parliaments. Before this, boroughs were to be found (with the exception of Galway and Athenry) only to the east and south of a line running from Carlingford to Limerick and thence to Cork. This line defines the region exposed to English administration’s earlier and cumulatively heavier impact. The same region was more densely populated than the other half of the island and this reality jumps off the page with a map showing the boundaries of medieval parishes. The map reveals more or less the same dichotomy, but for the re-entrance of Gaelic Laois and outliers in the Clanricard country of south-east Co Galway and Desmond lands in north Kerry. Another map reveals that in the core of the populated half, a townland bearing the parish name was likely to be a significant force in population concentration and nucleation. Yet another map showing population density and distribution in 1660 captures the same dichotomy, albeit with the Carlingford line pulled further north to Carrickfergus. This captures the reality of two Irelands, one an Ireland of mixed arable and tillage farming, more and bigger towns, and closer links to a wider commercialised economy, the other more pastoral and thinly populated. The line was not watertight, and one finds islands of one Ireland embedded in the other, like the Laggan in Co Donegal. Smyth describes this fairly simple picture fragmenting into a more complex mosaic as a broad swathe of commercialised pastoral farming, with diverse regional components like dairying, sheep walks, and black cattle fattening components, emerged in response to market demands. A composite map plotting the many new markets and the date of their creation, based on Patrick O’Connor’s Fairs and Markets, might have helped to illustrate commercialisation, as might plotting the first century of documentary references to the potato. The potato’s spread began as a response to commercialised agriculture when products like butter grew too valuable to be consumed by those who produced them.

Smyth’s local case study of Co Dublin interprets sources based on Cromwellian land settlement enquiries, like the Civil Survey, which list members of the land-owning upper crust, both native and settler. The most prominent of the latter was the Loftus interest: the patriarch of the interest Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin (1567-1605) and Lord Chancellor, had snapped up the confiscated estates of the rebel James Eustace Viscount Baltinglass at Rathfarnham and “privatised” (one might say) episcopal lands at Tallaght. Nicholas Barnewall of Turvey was the biggest Catholic landowner. We see a block of his lands (one of three) running all the way from Donabate through Swords to the county boundary. Family members were by tradition office-holders and judges excluded from power as recusants by the first decade of the seventeenth century and embedded in a dense web of marriage alliances within the Pale. Nicholas Barnewall’s sisters married variously into the Nettervilles and Aylmers of Co Dublin, the Flemings of Slane on the fringe of the Old Pale and one sister married Rory O’More, or Roger Moore as he was more often styled. He was grandson of a government-backed claimant to the O’More lordship who was rewarded with crown lands in Co Kildare and awarded an Ulster Plantation estate. O’More was one of the first plotters of the 1641 rising, though his early leadership was quickly eclipsed. The author’s diligence reveals the fuzziness of the “ethnic” boundary between the emergent identities of Irishness and Englishness, between papist and protestant. To revert briefly to a matter discussed above, the permeability of the line between coloniser and colonised makes Ireland’s putative colonial status harder to sustain. We see old Pale families like the St Lawrences and Usshers mostly lining up with the newcomers. The great scholar James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh (1625-54), was a scion of that family best known for calculating the date of the Creation (4004 BC) as part of a Protestant framework of history. We also encounter recent immigrants who acculturated sufficiently to be deemed “Irish Papist” by the Civil Survey: Allens of Palmerstown, Wolverstons of Stillorgan, Cheevers of Monkstown, Nottingham of Ballyowen and so on.

All well and good, but what makes this chapter such a powerful and imaginative evocation of a lost world is the way Smyth uses an apparently unpromising source to dig below the upper crust. This source is a listing of names and descriptions covering several parishes in south and south-west Co Dublin compiled by Cromwell’s officers and officials in or about 1651 as part of a strategy to combat raids by Irish guerrillas, or “tories” as they were known, from the nearby mountains. Armed with the list the officer could presumably detect those not listed for a particular household and apprehend them as suspected tories. Less than a third of these households consisted of nuclear families, the rest varying combinations of kin, servants and lodgers co-existing under one roof. Smyth’s treatment reminds us of the overwhelming importance of the servant class: some 24 per cent of adult females were servants. Below the landowning and farmer classes (which have distinctly different Old English surnames) the most common name among the artisans, servants, and cottiers was Byrne, followed well behind by Doyle and Murphy. Married women retained their maiden surnames, rather as women in rural Ireland were colloquially referred to until recently.

The mention of surnames brings me to Smyth’s gallant attempt to read a wider meaning into the dropping of Gaelic Christian names and the distortion of Gaelic surnames into variant anglicised forms. My own name provides a relatively uncorrupted and uncomplicated example. Lenihan can derive from Connacht Ó Leannacháin, Munster Ó Luineacháin, or Ulster Mac Leanacháin and variant forms of each include Lenaghan, Linehan, Mac Clenaghan, Mac Lanahan, or Lenahan. Other names were even more thoroughly mangled: opening Mac Lysaght’s Surnames of Ireland I see Ó Cuirc, a Tipperary surname originally, now appears as Kirke, Quick, and Oates (by mistranslation). Symth takes one form of distortion and painstakingly plots from the 1659 “census”, barony by barony, the extent to which the “O” or “Mac” was dropped from Gaelic names. His hypothesis that parts of the country where the “O” and “Mac” are dropped earlier and most completely would be frontrunners in the later process of linguistic transition from Gaelic to English is perfectly reasonable. To my mind, the most refined and accurate cartographic rendering of linguistic transition is a map compiled by Garret FitzGerald and published by the Royal Irish Academy in 1984. This map is based on nineteenth century census data that shows the proportion of Gaelic-speaking to Anglophone children in the 1790s. Smyth’s own exercise in back projection using the known association of English speech with high levels of literacy in the English language yields a roughly comparable spatial pattern. The regions with most complete substitution of “O” and “Mac”, like Co Louth or south Co Kilkenny stubbornly refuse to coincide with those areas from which Irish first retreated. The situation is made no clearer by Smyth’s map showing the regional pattern in change in Co Tipperary from Gaelic Christian first names like “Teige” (the single most common seventeenth century man’s Christian name and a contemporary nickname for an Irishman like “Mick” or “Paddy” today) to more common European Christian names. The Old English-dominated south-east of the county showed the most complete substitution. It also produced notable Irish language literati like Keating and Hackett and was Irish-speaking long after the traditionally Gaelic north of the county. One cannot be brave and imaginative in pulling and plotting data from unpromising sources without sometimes over-interpreting the evidence.

What Smyth calls “the long-drawn geographies of war” remain to be written. Even at the macro or strategic level, no one has really explained how physical obstacles like the drumlin belt of south Ulster or the Shannon Line patterned the strategy of sixteenth and seventeenth-century warfare or why redoubts like the midland bogs proved such persistent redoubts of native resistance.(7) But what Smyth does here, he does well. He devotes a great deal of attention to the war that dragged on from October 1641 until summer 1653 and the catastrophic impact of that war on both settler and native populations and on the sufferings of the natives in Oliver Cromwell’s retributive post-war settlement. Having carefully weighed the evidence he makes a compelling case that about a fifth of the population perished of famine and epidemic disease associated with (and exacerbated by) the Cromwellian conquest of 1649-53. Add to that post-war emigration of soldiers to the continent and of enslaved civilians shipped to the sugar cane plantations of Barbados and Jamaica and it is clear that the native population, in particular suffered a “demographic disaster”.

The settlers suffered their disaster a decade earlier. The existence of such a meaty source as the “depositions” ensures that prominent attention (though Smyth is careful to acknowledge Catholic parity of victimhood) is given to the Catholic-on-Protestant massacres of 1641 and the early months of 1642. These depositions were, for the most part, sworn statements in writing taken by a commission of clergymen from Protestant refugees detailing their loss of property and other sufferings. Smyth nimbly sidesteps the dreary centuries-old evidential controversy: “the crucial issue is not the actual reliability of the stories told but what the Protestant settlers believed to be true”. He also interprets the meaning of the act to the perpetrators. Thus he concludes that the very common practice of stripping settlers was intended to humiliate and dehumanise. True, but it had a more prosaic function. In a pre-industrial world outer garments were unimaginably more valuable, relative to income, than we can imagine, accustomed as we are to the cheap Chinese clothes one might buy in a department store today.(8)

Smyth is wise not to try to quantify how many settlers were actually killed. Too much of the groundwork has yet to be done.(9) A credible local of Armagh shows that at least 17 per cent of the British population of that county (almost certainly the worst-hit in Ireland) was killed. It will be possible to stitch together an accurate composite picture from other such local studies. This approach should also be extended to the study of massacres inflicted on Catholics a few months later. A study of Dublin, Kildare, Louth, and Meath, the counties worst affected, would be worthwhile although the sources are more scanty, scattered, and even less reliable.

In telling the story of the 1641, Smyth frets about distorting its essentially chaotic nature by imposing “too much order and clarity”. He needn’t have worried. A map gives a useful general impression. It depicts (see attached) Protestant

owned land across three of the four provinces: the Cromwellian Down Survey from which the information is extracted did not extend to Connacht. I think the category of “Gaelic murders” means Protestant-on-Catholic attacks but is best ignored. Otherwise, the map plots a range of different kinds of attack on settlers, pillaging, stripping, killing, and so on. The map shows a high correlation between the margins of areas of protestant settlement and vulnerability to attack. West Ulster returns very few atrocities, no doubt partly because local settlers had advanced warning and time to organise effective resistance. The underrepresentation of west Ulster and the overrepresentation of Co Cork may also reflect the number of refugees who could make their way to Dublin and Cork, the main centres where depositions were taken.

Smyth captures the “phenomenal transformation” planned by the English Commonwealth in Ireland, which initially included transplanting all natives west of the Shannon to be corralled in a native reservation bound by forts and garrisons guarding the harbours and river crossings. In the end, as we know, “just” the landowners were sent: this still amounted to quite a few people when servants and followers were included and it could, as Smyth’s Dublin case study shows, have a significant local demographic impact. Without maps the cumbersome process of assigning land in Connacht to Catholic landowners in proportion to their relative “demerits” (virtually none were presumed to have merits) could not have happened.(10) Nor could the painstaking process of assigning vacated land to various category of English grantee. Like other geographers, Smyth confesses admiration for William Petty.(11) Petty (depicted in a pose reminiscent of Hamlet) added little to existing surveying techniques

but his energy and organisational genius drove an army of surveyors to map 840,000,000 acres in just thirteen months. The maps enumerate who owned the land, where it lay, and its quality, with “profitable” land further subdivided by land use and quality. A typical parish map sketches sparse pictorial information but the boundaries of townlands are carefully drawn, numbered, and cross-referenced to an accompanying table of landowners. A very accurate outline map of most of Ireland, drawn up by Thomas Taylor, one of Petty’s lieutenants, in 1660 might have been compared to Lythe’s map to good effect. Cartographic representation shows that the conquest was consolidated.

Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory is co-winner of the James S Donnelly Snr Prize for books on History and Social Sciences awarded by the American Conference for Irish Studies. The prize is well deserved.

  1. Smyth, WJ “Society and Settlement in Seventeenth Century Ireland: the evidence of the 1659 census” in W Smyth and K Whelan (eds) Common Ground Essays on the Historical Geography of Ireland (Cork, 1988)
  2. Lennon, C. The urban patriciates of early modern Ireland; a case study of Limerick (Maynooth, 1999) pp.4-5.
  3. Bartlett, T. ‘Ireland, Empire and Union, 1690-1801’ in Kevin Kenny (ed.) Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford, 2004)
  4. Connolly, S. J. Religion, Law and Power The Making of Protestant Ireland 1660-1760 (Oxford, 1992) pp.113-4.
  5. Ellis, S.G. Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447-1603 English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule (London, 1998) pp.20, 142-3. Brady, C. (1995) ‘Comparable histories?: Tudor reform in Wales and Ireland’ in S. Ellis and S. Barber (eds.) Conquest & Union Fashioning a British State 1485-1725 (London, 1995) pp.72-75.
  6. Robinson, P. The Plantation of Ulster (Dublin, 1984)
  7. But see Lenihan, P. ‘Strategic Geography 1641-1691’ in ibid. (ed.) Conquest and Resistance War in Seventeenth-Century Ireland (Leiden, 2001) pp. 115-150
  8. Canny, N. Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 (Oxford, 2001) p.542.
  9. Simms, H. ‘Violence in County Armagh, 1641’in B. MacCuarta (ed.) Ulster 1641 Aspects of the Rising (Belfast, 1997) pp.133-7.
  10. Stevenson, D. ‘Cromwell, Scotland, and Ireland’ in J. Morrill (ed.) Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (London, 1990) p.166.
  11. Prunty, J. Maps and Map-Making in Local History (Dublin, 2004) p.51.
  12. Andrews, J.H. Shapes of Ireland Maps and their Makers 1564-1839 (Dublin, 1997) pp.122, 126.


Pádraig Lenihan teaches history at the University of Limerick. His survey of early modern Irish history, Consolidating Conquest 1603-1727, will be published by Longman this year.

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